Madison Reed And The AI Of Hair Color

Buying hair color out of a box at a store is a retail experience that leaves much to be desired, as anyone who has ever tried to match a salon result in their bathroom at home can quickly attest. One’s options are limited to the handful of shades on the shelf and their best guess as to which one is the closest match to the hair they have (or the hair they aspire to have).

And that’s just the buying part of things. Depending on the brand a consumer picks, they then have a long and involved process to look forward to in their home bathroom that involves mixing chemicals, timers and the always vaguely present fear that no matter how closely one followed the directions on the box, they are about to end up reeking of ammonia with pumpkin-colored hair when they wash it out.

Coloring one’s hair at home has the advantage of saving money, as store-bought dye average $10 to $20 per treatment while salon coloring averages around $100 for simple color — but for most dye in the box, that’s where the advantages begin and end.

Which is exactly the problem Madison Reed was founded to solve, Chief Product Officer Maureen Watson told PYMNTS in a recent interview.

“This idea of how we can make the process better for a woman choosing her hair color is what inspired us. Right now, if a consumer goes to the store to buy hair color, they’re making a choice from the picture that maybe looks somewhat like their hair color. Our focus is to match that consumer to the exactly right shade and then give her everything she needs in the box — so that women get to take control of their beauty,” Watson said.

This ability to give more control, Watson said, is what drives the team at Madison Reed as it looks to push hair coloring into the digital era. It’s also the motivation behind what the brand does — which is, in Watson’s words, “to make it possible to get salon-quality hair color at home.”

The way they do that, she explained, is through two types of innovations.

Fixing The Dye And The Application Process

Part of what differentiates the Madison Reed offering are the hair care products themselves. There is a lot of variety — the brand currently carries 45 different shades on its site — but the kits themselves are intended to be quite simple.

“We watched 50 women go through their color process at home before we started building. We took video, we asked questions and we learned a lot about what goes into the boxes we sent home to customers.’

Madison Reed started by focusing on its ingredient list, taking out things like PPD, parabens and ammonia to get rid of that distinctly unpleasant hair dye smell. Madison Reed dyes don’t even contain wheat gluten because as it turns out, it is a common preservative in dye that can make those who are allergic to it every bit as sick as they would have been if they ate it. The product is also designed to add tone and color in order to avoid “the flat opaque look” that is the likely result from typical boxed dyes.

Beyond fixing the product itself, Watson noted, Madison Reed has also worked hard to make it easier for customers to actually use the product. User error is a major reason that home beauty efforts usually break down. That means that on the Madison Reed website there is an abundance of video content demonstrating correct uses. And their customer service staff is a bit different from the average call center worker group.

“Our entire customer service team is called the color crew, and they are all licensed cosmetologists and colorists,” Watson said. “Our clients can engage with them via email, phone or live chat — with a focus on guiding the consumer through everything from color selection to color application to fixing of the color. Whatever goes wrong, our guys are there to help them through the process.”

And human element on the back end is key, she said, because it allows for that full personalized customer experience that the consumer generally isn’t going to see with self-service hair dye.

And that personalized experience actually starts from the word go in the Madison Reed journey — though in its initial phase it doesn’t actually entail a person from the company.

The AI Of Hair Dye

The “look at a picture and make a guess” school of hair dye buying has some obvious limitations, so Madison Reed uses a learning algorithm to help consumers make better choices. That means a customer’s first stop when they visit Madison Reed is with the color advisor, which asks them a variety of questions about their hair color, style, dying history, length and texture — it is basically an online dating profile for human hair — with the goal of making a match, albeit not a romantic one.

“We run all of that data through a pretty sophisticated algorithm to recommend the best of one of 45 shades in our color portfolio,” Watson said. “That tool is always updated and continuously feeds new information because our goal is to use that algorithm to make better recommendations all the time.”

And how to deliver that service to consumers is updating all the time — last year Madison rolled out Madi, their mobile chatbot. Instead of logging answers into the color advisor by hand, users can instead upload a selfie to Madi (via text message or Facebook Messenger), and from there the tech that powers “her” can determine a user’s primary hair color as well as the nuance of secondary tones.

Madi also asks follow-up questions to learn more about a user’s hair and desired outcomes. From there, Madi sends a personalized color match — and even offers additional recommendations that clients can browse (as photos) to compare shades.

“We love Madi,” Watson noted. “She’s the stylist in the consumer’s pocket.”

And while Madison Reed might be expected to love Madi — they aren’t alone: The team at Ulta is also giving Madi some room to reach out and influence shoppers in the physical world.

Ulta Partnership

Going forward, home hair care enthusiasts will have a non-digital destination to check out Madison Reed products — and perhaps have a brief interaction with Madi, as the up-and-coming upstart is coming to the shelves at Ulta.

Watson noted that given Ulta’s prominence and uniquely forward-looking attitude, the convergence was a natural fit.

“Ulta has come on fast and furiously as the great retailer in the personal care and beauty industry. We facilitated a meeting in the fall of last year and showed them our product as well as the original idea behind Madi,” Watson explained. “[Ulta is] interested in innovative things that are happening in the beauty and self-care industry. They liked what they saw, and so we decided to see how we can work together.”

That decision to collaborate has turned into Madison Reed’s inclusion on the shelves at 325 Ulta locations nationwide with shelf space to introduce the brand, 13 of its 45 shades and Madi — from whom customers can get recommendations.

“The Madison Reed shelves have a unique text number for the Ulta beauty client to text her selfie to Madi. From there the process is the same — Madi runs her AI magic and gives customers a set of recommendations.”

Hair dye might not like seem like a naturally high-tech occupation — in fact, on the surface it seems like a simple consumer good that should be immune to high-tech improvement.

And Madison Reed is committed to continuing to find it — both in the products it releases and the means by which it puts them in customers’ hands. That has meant new journeys lately into the world of chatbots and into the wilds of physical retail — but Madison Reed is certainly a company that isn’t afraid of taking on change.

It is a DIY hair dye firm at heart, after all.


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Our data and analytics team has developed a number of creative methodologies and frameworks that measure and benchmark the innovation that’s reshaping the payments and commerce ecosystem. Check out the February 2019 PYMNTS Digital Fraud Tracker Report

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